(More) On Katy Perry and Cultural Appropriation

by Vivian Obarski and Kenzo Shibata

TLF has previously written about Gwen Stefan’s appropriation of Japanese culture in her branding, but after the recent performance by Katy Perry that blended together elements from Japanese, Chinese, Buddhist, and generally western “Chinoiserie”- ish elements, much more needs to be said. So we asked TLF’s own Viv and TLF-esteemed guest writer Kenzo Shibata to share their thoughts.

Viv: I’ll be honest, what offended me about Katy Perry’s performance of Unconditionally wasn’t just that the song is terrible, but that the whole “pan-Asian” thing was so dull? Maybe I just didn’t muster up enough energy to be offended, because I’ve seen this before and it’s the same thing I’ve seen since 1981 — which to me proves that stereotyping just can’t come up with original shit.

It wasn’t anything new — it was just Katy Perry wanting to wear a kimono, do some fan dancing and that was it. To be honest, I’m not putting the juxtaposition of the lyrics with the performance, because I couldn’t understand what she was belting out, except for the word “unconditionally.” Also other blogs have discussed that more in-depth and more intelligently that I could. I’ll also confess my mind did the Homer Simpson thing of “I’m leaving. You’re on your own” and wandered off.

Admittedly the performance wasn’t as over the top as Miley’s was at the VMAs, but the cultural appropriation is still the same. They both grabbed the surface details of a culture and dressed up in it and ultimately it was a lazy, shallow performance in terms of being groundbreaking.

I should add the caveat right now that I’m Chinese-American, so my reaction may be very different than someone who is Japanese or who has very close ties to Japanese culture. Also, I’ve grown up in an era where blackface and yellowface has happened (anyone remember the movie Soul Man? Billy Crystal doing Sammy Davis Jr.?) so I’m used to seeing people do this sort of appropriation so often that it’s not a hot fury anger sort of thing — it’s more of a weary sigh of “Oh lord. What now?”

What always irritates me off about stuff like this (and this also goes to me going for fusion cuisine — I remember the days of Peking Duck pizza) is that it’s a lack of understanding and appreciation of a culture. Of the roots and reasons for things — it’s more like “This is pretty and I want it, so I’m going to use it.”

Fusion works in some areas, but it’s more the understanding of the roots and history of how a culture works and then bending it to look at it a new way. This wasn’t fusion. It was basically putting a Madame Butterfly face on a pop song (and don’t get me started on Madame Butterfly or Miss Saigon).

What’s funny is that shortly after I saw that performance, I saw Anthony Bourdain explore modern Tokyo on Parts Unknown and I feel like he did a better job exploring a culture in the here and now. I think that disappointed me with Katy Perry’s performance — we live in an Internet age where it’s easy to get information and learn about new cultures and this is the best she could do? Something that fits in with Gilbert and Sullivan? It’s like she didn’t try at all.

I’m not one of those people who believe that if you’re a certain race it’s always cultural appropriation if you cross the line. I’m more of a “it depends” sort of person (NPR’s Codeswitch blog had a great post on how hip-hop has gone global that reflects my feelings on this.) If you show an appreciation and in-depth understanding of the history, background and knowledge that’s different than just slapping on a kimono and posing as a geisha for a night. It’s obvious from Katy Perry’s performance that she has no real understanding of the history of geishas or Japanese culture, other than it looks pretty and colorful and different than American culture.

What is insulting to me is that she can’t tell the difference between East Asian cultures. A kimono and geisha culture is completely different than her wearing a qipao (which from what I can gather is more of a fashion statement — albeit with some bloody undertones that date back to the Manchu Dynasty, but are probably long forgotten by now) and it’s clear she didn’t get it. Again, a pet peeve of mine — the flattening of culture. Japan is not China is not Korea. A kimono is not a qipao. We aren’t an interchangeable group of people that won’t be irritated if you take aspects of our culture and throw it in a blender without an understanding of how and why it works.

Racialicious also has a great point on how insulting it is — growing up we’ve been teased about not blending in because of the food we eat, how our eyes are shaped, the clothing we wear, our accents, etc. But when someone else does it who isn’t that ethnicity, it’s considered revolutionary and they’re considered cool for doing it. That’s the annoyance I feel, along with the anger over the fact that she doesn’t even bother trying to be accurate.

Kenzo: But I’d love to get you started on Miss Saigon, but that would be a different post entirely.
I feel the need to emphasize that I have no reason to believe that Katy Perry is a bigot. I’m sure in her heart she felt that her performance was some kind of homage to Japanese culture. The problem here isn’t that she hates Japanese people. The issue is the fact that race and culture are complicated matters that cannot be reduced to food and aesthetics. Last year on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Perry said she wanted to skin a Japanese woman alive and wear her skin as “Versace.” I’m sure that she felt that was a compliment, but it implies that Japanese women are an accessory.

This is typically where the dialogue on race matters becomes an exercise in futility. The apologists will hammer out a thousand reasons why Katy Perry(or whomever was accused) is not racist (although they mean ‘bigot’) and the critics like me will become frustrated explaining that’s not the matter at hand. I truly feel that it’s the task of people of color and our allies to educate the public into thinking these issues go much deeper than “you did something that offended me, you must hate me.”

I was actually not watching the AMAs live, but passively checking into tweets during Perry’s performance. I saw a few pics and didn’t think much of it. I also have become completely desensitized to my heritage being used as prop. I’m used to a media that would not dare promote an Asian or Asian American female pop singer, but heaps praise upon a white pop star using a cartoon version of our culture as a prop. This is the same media who adores the goofy, offbeat “niche” pop star PSY until they find out that prior to the cartoonish “Gangnam Style,” the novelty sensation actually dared to have agency and wrote songs about the plight of South Korea, a country where actual people, not just ethnic memes, live.

I thought about context and I started to get more agitated. This past Halloween, a debate sprung over whether or not donning blackface was acceptable as a costume. I was born long after blackface was considered acceptable. It was just something people understood was wrong. Even the strident racists I remember in my youth would never use Halloween as an excuse to mock African Americans. Maybe it’s all the talk of “post racial” America and some white folks’ fatigue over dealing with the “PC Police” (a concept that is a ridiculous strawman), but it’s like people need to be reminded why there are objections to blackface. It was almost part of a social contract to stay away from blackface. However, in “post racial America,” adhering to some basic standards like not wearing blackface is seen as a violation of one’s rights. People have the right to mock others, but there’s no such thing as a right to not have others be offended by your actions. That’s another wall that I hit when I debate issues of appropriation. I am in no way advocating for performances like Perry’s to be banned, I just think she needs to know that her actions have consequences.

“Blackface” and “Yellowface” are not just offensive to people of color for historical reasons; they dismiss a culture as being something you can pull out of the closet and wear as a costume. Studies have shown how people with “whiter” sounding names are picked over people with Black names for jobs. “Kristin” can go twerking in the club and then put on a suit and go on a job interview the next day. “Latisha” on the other hand, cannot put on a magic privilege hat before applying for the same job as Kristin. These are real material differences in opportunity.

I feel that the costume was used as a backdrop to a song about “standing by your man,” using the tired trope of the doting, subservient Asian woman. I deliberately used the word “feel” because like I said earlier, I have no idea what’s in Perry’s heart. Perhaps she did not make that connection. That’s a big problem with appropriation, though. It’s thoughtless. If it was done tastefully with people of color involved in the planning process, it ceases to be appropriation and may even be a tribute. However, the attitude that “I’m doing a tribute to you guys, you’d better like it,” is the opposite of a tribute. We never asked you for a tribute. You can stop. Please stop.


Kenzo is a Chicago-based digital strategist, activist, and teacher. His writing can be seen in Gapers Block, Beachwood Reporter, AREA-Chicago, Alter-Net, In These Times, Substance News, Salon, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has been highlighted in WBEZ’s blog, The Daily Dot, and DNA-Info. He’s been a guest on Take Action News and the Matthew Filipowicz Show.

Comments (7)

Let’s not forget the many East Asian cultural appropriations from the West. You know, like pop music, film, advanced medicine, engineering, maths, transport, nuclear weapons, etc…. Katy Perry vs. you know, the entire economy of China, Japan, and South Korea… I was particularly struck by recent photographs of the Chinese navy with their crew lined up in crackerjack uniforms. Where did those come from?

As TLF’s resident Kristin, I’d just like it known for the record that I do not twerk, I have never twerked, and I will never twerk. And my race has nothing to do with why.

I think the thing that gets me the most about appropriation of cultures is the fact that it IS thoughtless, yet entitled. White people think they have a right to do this, when in fact, they have no rights to it at all…and sadly, that hasn’t made it through the mass ignorance that comes with that entitlement and privilege (of being white).

The thing that bothers me most about how people view cultural appropriation in America is they almost never acknowledge that the power differential and the respect with witch a culture is studied are what makes appropriation problematic. What color you are and what culture you’re borrowing from aren’t the problem. If your race or culture has significant social privileges over the group you’re borrowing from you are entering territory where you may hurt other people. If you are using stereotyped images of what you think that group is like rather than learning about them and who they are in the present day, you are likewise entering very bad territory.

White people can borrow respectfully, but it’s harder because as a group people of our race have abused the ability to borrow from other cultures so much in the past. Likewise, it’s totally possible to borrow from majority white cultures and be incredibly cruel and ham fisted… making something that looks stupid / shallow and hurting people in the process. It’s harder because we have a lot of social privilege that insulates us from feeling like we’re constantly reduced to stereotypes (that wound isn’t so gaping and sore for most of us). If you don’t believe me, there’s an excellent discussion of exorcising and appropriating Italian culture for a specific book here: http://renatoram.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/clanbook-giovanni-or-how-a-western-and-rich-culture-can-be-appropriated/

And Aaron, the thing you’re bringing up with the uniforms is appropriation, but it’s not particularly making fun of American sailors… so what is your problem with it exactly? It’s not the same as harping on cultural stereotypes that have been used to harm us for hundreds of years.

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Wait, did Chinese sailors cosplay as American sailors? Or did they just wear a sailor uniform? I think Aaron might want to check out how military uniforms looks around the world. It is more likely that Chinese uniforms are inspired by British uniforms (as are, you know, the American), much like the Japanese school uniforms are inspired by Prussian/German. Regardless, that isn’t CULTURAL appropriation, and neither are the use of “transport” and “maths”. Cultural appropriation on a Perryesque level would be a Chinese artist performing as “Texas Billy-Bob”, performing country songs about gator huntin’ in the lush plains of downtown Manhattan.

Come to think of it, engineering, maths and transport are not western inventions in any way. As far as I know, Arabs aren’t complaining about our appropriation of mathematics. We aren’t aping Arabic mathematics, we are using and evolving it.

What Perry and Stefani are doing is taking snippets of another culture out of context. Nobody would mind if a western artist played the shamisen or the sitar (it seemed to work just fine for those fellas from Liverpool), i.e. using and evolving music from another culture, incorporating it with your own. That is, after all, how culture works. If it didn’t, we’d all still be banging sticks on rocks. What pisses people off is when artists take superficial attributes of another culture and use them as a fun and quirky fashion accessory. (Japanese pop-culture actually does this all the time with western culture, but apparently the reciprocally-outraged westerners haven’t noticed, so I won’t tip them off.)

The cultural sensitivity of people might also depend on their history. As a Swede, I am not offended at all by the Minnesota Vikings (although the historically incorrect horned helmet is a tad annoying). However, I completely understand that Washington Redskins might be ever so slightly offensive to some people in the US. If my people had been subject to a genocide by the US govermnent I might have had a different attitude.

Also, the success of Katy Perry is completely baffling to me.She is mediocre on absolutely every level. She is like a blank canvas that someone forgot to paint. On the other hand, Atsuko Maeda was the ace of AKB48, and canvasses don’t get much blanker than that. Maybe the love of uninteresting artists can bring cultures together?

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